The time between your workouts is when the magic of muscle- and strength-building really happens. It’s when your body repairs the damage done in a workout, so you can perform better in your next session. During this time, sleep is super important, along with the right muscle recovery foods.

Just like during training, the healing process demands fuel, too, whether you’re trying to bounce back from a tough workout or an injury. “It’s like fixing a house,” explains Cynthia Sass, R.D., a sports dietitian. “A crack in the foundation requires raw materials to patch things back together, and in the body those raw materials come from what we eat.”

Proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants all play a role in the healing process. So, to help you choose the right food combos that will prep you for your next workout or get you back in the saddle post-injury, we asked Sass to break down the best muscle recovery foods. Here’s what to add to your grocery cart.

Muscle Recovery Must-Have: Produce

baked sweet potato with green salad in a white bowl vegan food concept
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Buy: Carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and kale for vitamin A; oranges, strawberries, peppers, and broccoli for vitamin C

Why: Vitamin A helps make white blood cells for fighting infection, “which is always a risk with injury,” Sass says. Vitamin C has been proven to help skin and flesh wounds heal faster and stronger, making it a valuable ally when caring for road rash. Vitamin C also helps repair connective tissues and cartilage by contributing to the formation of collagen, an important protein that builds scar tissue, blood vessels, and even new bone cells.

Muscle Recovery Must-Have: Protein

a plate of grilled chicken with carrot salad on white background
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Buy: Lean turkey, sirloin, and chicken, or if you eat mostly plant-based, go for tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, peanuts, or almonds

Why: Lean meats are packed with protein, a critical building block for muscle and muscle repair postworkout. Because most adult athletes require more than 100 grams of protein per day for optimal healing, eating meat is an easy way to help you meet this goal.

Research shows that plant proteins are just as effective as animal proteins for muscle gains—and following a plant-based diet can support your heart health—so feel free to swap in some beans or tofu for meat, too.

Muscle Recovery Must-Have: Dairy

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Buy: Yogurt and milk

Why: Both yogurt and milk are good sources of protein, and they also contain calcium, which repairs bone and muscle. The vitamin D in dairy products improves calcium absorption and helps injured muscle and bone heal. Vitamin D may also play a role in maintaining lean body mass, as well as muscle protein synthesis, as Bicycling previously reported.

Many people are deficient in vitamin D so it might also be worth talking to your doctor about supplementation. A simple blood test will determine if you’re short on the vitamin.

Muscle Recovery Must-Have: Cereal

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Buy: Fortified cereal

Why: Fortified cereal contains zinc, a proven asset to the immune system and to healing wounds. Along with red meat, fortified cereals are the best sources (some deliver 100 percent of your recommended daily value). By itself, zinc doesn’t repair damaged tissue, but it assists the nutrients that do.

“Just don’t overdo it,” Sass cautions. While you probably won’t get too much zinc from foods, if you add supplements to the mix—and consume more than 40 grams a day for an adult—it can lower HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and may suppress your immune system.

Cereal supplies moderate zinc doses as well as whole-grain carbohydrates, which fuel your body’s healing efforts and keep it from dipping into protein for energy. “Eating enough carbs ensures that your body puts all of its available protein toward repairs,” Sass explains.

Muscle Recovery Must-Have: Seafood

salmon steak with spinach and tomatoes
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Buy: Salmon, tuna, and trout

Why: In addition to an added protein bonus, fish is packed with omega-3s, fatty acids that offer major anti-inflammatory properties. Taming your inflammation can help improve recovery after a workout, including easing sore muscles, and speed up recovery from an injury.

Omega-3s offer benefits beyond recovery, too, including boosting cardiovascular health and reducing blood pressure.

Muscle Recovery Recipe

Spanish Chicken with Saffron Rice

spanish chicken with saffron rice
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Put all those recovery foods to good use with this health-boosting recipe:

  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts*
  • 1 tablespoon sunflower oil, divided
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 large red onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, cut into half moons (or bite-size pieces)
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut into small cubes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed
  • 1 14-oz can diced tomatoes (unsalted), with juice*
  • 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth*
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • 1/4 cup chopped green olives
  • 1 cup fresh (or frozen and thawed) peas*
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped parsley for garnish

*Use organic when available

    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat 1/2 tablespoon sunflower oil in a cast-iron skillet on high heat. Brown chicken on both sides (four minutes each side), then bake uncovered in the skillet for 25 minutes. Remove from oven, drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil, and set aside, covered. After 10 minutes, slice chicken into strips.

    2. In a pot, add cumin, paprika and remaining sunflower oil. Sauté the onion, carrots and bell pepper for five minutes. Add garlic and rice and stir for one minute. Add tomatoes (with juice), chicken or vegetable broth, bay leaves, and saffron. Bring to a boil and add salt to taste. Stir, cover, and lower heat. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until rice is cooked.

    3. Remove from heat, stir in sliced chicken, green olives, and peas. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Garnish each plate with chopped parsley.

Serves four. Per serving: 535 calories; 12.8g fat; 61.3g protein; 42.2g carbs, recipe courtesy of Cristina Urioste,